HL Deb 26 March 1885 vol 296 cc639-42

My Lords, perhaps, before putting the Question I have placed upon the Paper, I may explain that it will be more convenient if I ask the Question of my noble Friend the Under Secretary of State for War. The reason why I addressed the Question to His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief was that I thought no one would be so well able to explain to the House the particulars of this unfortunate and calamitous affair as His Royal Highness; for we all know the very long experience which His Royal Highness has had in connection with the Army, and his opinion would have been received by the country with some sort of feeling of comfort. I can hardly help stating now that there is a feeling existing, not only in the country, but in the Army, that these disasters which have occurred would not have happened if ordinary precautions had been taken. Since putting this Question on the Paper I am told that a zereba has been destroyed, and I believe it is now occupied by an Arab force. I am also informed that a convoy of camels on its march has also been entirely destroyed; and I should like to know if there is any truth in the report that a number of camels, or other beasts of burden, supposed to be conveying water to the troops, had not, when they arrived, a drop of water in their water tanks? I will, therefore, ask the Under Secretary of State for War, Whether, having regard to the unusually heavy loss of officers and men, and the almost complete annihilation of transport in the advance made on Sunday last from Suakin, attributed to the neglect of the most ordinary military precautions, when advancing in an enemy's country, the General commanding on that occasion still retains the confidence of the War Department? But if my noble Friend would prefer it, I will willingly postpone my Question until after the Easter Holidays, when, perhaps, more information may have been obtained.


My Lords, I am very glad to hear that the Question of the noble Lord has been transferred from His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief to the Under Secretary of State for War, because I think that it is quite contrary to all precedent in this House that a Question, of that kind should be addressed to His Royal Highness, and that His Royal Highness should have to answer such a Question as that. I cannot help thinking it is very impolitic to put a Question of that kind at the present time to anybody. The Under Secretary cannot know all the circumstances of the affair, and I do not see how he can answer it. It would be positively unfair to make an answer to such a Question without having the fullest cognizance of every single detail connected with the matter. I do not wish to go into the particulars; but I would say that the despatch which was gent from General Graham had this one paragraph— That he deeply regretted the very serious loss, but that he was of opinion that General M'Neill had done everything that was possible under the circumstances. That, my Lords, was the report of General Graham, the Commander of the Forces at Suakin. If we are not to accept the telegraphic reports which come from our General Officer, I really do not see how we are to carry on the business of war. The authority of those in command over those under them would be weakened, and it would be impossible to expect them to do justice to the work in which they were engaged, if their conduct was impugned in this manner, without full examination and inquiry. Though I abstain from mentioning details in this matter, I would say that General M'Neill served with great gallantry at Lucknow. He was in the Red River Expedition, and in the New Zealand and Ashantee Wars; and I am sure, if this matter comes to a Court of Inquiry, he will be perfectly able to answer every charge that can be brought against him.


My Lords, I beg to say a word in support of what the noble Lord has stated. I think it would make the service of this country in the field extremely difficult, if officers were to be put on their trial in this House on the information of a telegram, or of sensational letters from special correspondents. General Graham commanded with great success at Tel-el-Kebir, and won the confidence of his Commander and of every man under whom he served. He afterwards gained two decisive victories upon the ground where he is now operating, and we may be sure that he is perfectly competent to judge of what took place upon the spot, and we shall have full information from him upon the affair when he is able to send it. We shall then be able to judge of what has been done, and whether General M'Neill's conduct has been in accordance with the principles of war, or whether it has not. At pro-sent it would be quite premature for your Lordships to form any opinion upon the question raised by the noble Lord, and I trust that the noble Lord will think it wise to withdraw his Question.


My Lords, I also trust the noble Lord will listen to the appeal which has been made to him. I think it is the view of the House that the Question should not be put. I confess that, after what has been stated by distinguished military authorities, and this being a somewhat new case, I am disposed to move that the Question be not put.


My Lords, I am advised that there may be a difficulty in the way of the noble Marquess making an actual Motion, because what is before the House is not a Motion, but a Question. I agree entirely with what the noble Marquess has said as to the impropriety of the Question being put. It is perfectly obvious that this is neither the time nor the place to examine into this affair. I express no opinion whatever beyond saying that this is neither the time nor the place, and I hope the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw the Question.


My Lords, after what has fallen from the other side, and from the noble Lords on the Front Benches, I shall certainly withdraw the Question.